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Photographing the Nazca Geoglyphs in Peru: An Interview with Photographer Ed Ranney

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Aroma Valley, Chile, 2006. © Ed Ranney

Edward Ranney has been photographing pre-Columbian sites in Peru for over fifty years. His book Monuments of the Incas was released in 1982, reprinted in paperback in 1990, and re-released in 2010 by Thames and Hudson in an expanded edition, with updated text.

His monograph The Lines, being released in August by Yale University Press, presents pictures of geoglyphs created by the Nazca culture in southern Peru, and other cultures in Chile’s Atacama desert.

Photo credit: Krista Elrick

PetaPixel: To begin Ed, talk about the early days of your photography career. Where did you get your start as a professional?

Ed Ranney: A post-­graduate Fulbright fellowship to study in Cuzco from 1964‐65 gave me my first opportunity to photograph seriously in black and white.

During that year I photographed the Quechua people, landscape, and Inca ruins around Cuzco with a Leica and Rolleiflex. The experience of working there as a student provided the background for the later, in­‐depth study Monuments of the Incas, which I undertook in 1971, working in (the) large format.

My working life in photography essentially started in 1970, the year my wife and I moved to Santa Fe. At that time I was also able to photograph sites of the ancient Maya and was invited to publish the book Stonework of the Maya with the University of New Mexico Press, which was released in 1974.

Nazca Valley, 2009. © Ed Ranney

PP: What’s the driving force behind your work and your desire to make photographs? Has it changed over time?

ER: I guess I’d say I develop interests in different subject matter, and make a commitment to photograph those subjects in some depth, often over an extended period of time. I usually have different projects percolating at the same time and work at them until I feel they are ready for publication.

The Inca book developed throughout the 1970s, and was published in 1982. The landscape and architecture of ancient America has proved to be a key focus of my work, with a special attachment to Peru, where I am still working. Since 1985 I have been engaged in a project I refer to as the Andean Coastal Survey, which focuses on ancient sites located in the desert areas of Peru and northern Chile.

Cerro Unitas, Pampa Tamarugal, Chile, 2006. © Ed Ranney

PP: Throughout your life you’ve photographed monuments, relics, Incan stonework, places loaded with the old cultural memory. With the vast spectrum of themes and stories happening in the world, you’ve focused your lens on a relatively concentrated set of ideas. What are these things and places to you? What importance do you see in them?

ER: In the early 1970s I realized that my best, most rewarding work seemed to be connected to photographing the landscape and architecture of ancient sites, particularly in the Americas, and that most people, even archaeologists, had no idea how to approach them visually.

I’m not particularly interested in working at these places unless I’m using the view camera, as I feel the large format gives me a special way of recording the space and feeling of each site, as well as providing a deeply satisfying working experience. One gains a great deal, I think, by choosing to have some limitations on subject matter, exploring things in some depth, and perhaps making contributions to our understanding of the world rather than merely advancing an artistic agenda.

Palpa Valley, 2004. © Ed Ranney

PP: Your latest project is called ‘The Lines.’ Introduce us to the Lines, what are they, where are they, and what is their significance?

ER: The book The Lines, which the Yale Art Gallery is releasing this year, grew out of the extended Andean Coastal Survey.

I realized over the past few years that the pictures I’ve made of ancient geoglyphs in southern Peru and northern Chile had come to constitute a distinct body of work in itself. The lines were created over several centuries around 500 AD mostly by the ancient Nazca. The figural geoglyphs on the vast arid plain not far from the town of Nazca have become the glyphs most well-known thanks reproduction of aerial photographs of them.

Though I have seen the glyphs from the air, as a landscape photographer, my approach has been to explore and photograph the straight and geometric lines with my 5×7” camera, mostly in the dry foothills bordering the desert.

This book is in no way definitive, it just represents one person’s interest in finding these glyphs and photographing them in the context in which their creators experienced them. Though their purpose is not definitively known, they clearly served a ceremonial purpose, and were continually used and recreated over several centuries, perhaps to honor sacred mountains and sources of water. It was previously thought they were astronomically and calendrically aligned, which could be true in some cases, but now that idea is not widely accepted.

Nazca Pampa, 1996. © Ed Ranney

PP: Who were the Nazca? What do we know about them?

ER: The Nazca culture had its roots in traditions developed by the Paracas culture, and has generally been dated from around the beginning of the Christian era until AD 800. Their habitation sites and cemeteries, where their exquisite polychrome pottery and beautiful textiles have been found, ranged pre-dominantly from Peru’s Ica Valley throughout the Rio Grande de Nazca drainage further south.

Their architecture was constructed mostly with perishable materials, so no grand cities or temples, with the exception perhaps of the pilgrimage site of Cahuachi, have survived. The geoglyphs which they created on the arid plains and hillsides were first noticed by early air flights over the southern coast, and have come to be the culture’s most widely recognized cultural creation.

Nazca Pampa 1985. © Ed Ranney

PP: ‘The Lines’ is a fascinating series to me. It’s not the type of work that immediately hits me, but the more I look at these images the more they fill me; like a water glass under a slowly pouring faucet. There’s a certain quietude to them, and in a strange way your photographs read as though you have great respect for the lines. What can you say about the style of your work, and the relationships you forge with the subjects you photograph?

ER: I do greatly value the geoglyphs that have survived, and hope pictures of them will increase others’ respect for them -­‐ they are by nature very fragile, easily wrecked by vehicles and even excessive foot-traffic. Entry onto the flat Nazca plain has been prohibited for years, and trespassers are severely punished.

I also cherish the views the large format camera gives us of the lines — the large camera reveals a complexity of space and detail that is not common to smaller cameras, and the process of extended walking and working slowly in the more remote, seldom visited areas is in keeping with the nature of the glyphs. I often have to accept the light conditions I encounter in these areas, and that too becomes a distinct part of the picture making process -­‐ surprises and discoveries are always involved in such an undertaking and deepen the mystery of the creation and use of the glyphs.

It is important to add that a project such as this depends in large part on the collaboration of Peruvian friends and knowledgeable local people, as well as archaeologists, who over the years have helped me in the field on many different occasions.

Nazca Pampa. 1985. © Ed Ranney

PP: Judging by the traditional and formal compositions you’ve made, as well as the fact that you live in Santa Fe, I would guess that Edward Weston is a strong influence for you. Am I close to the mark here? What photographers have you been most influenced by in your practice?

ER: As a student in the mid 1960s I was deeply struck by the well-produced small monograph Nancy Newhall published on Edward Weston entitled The Flame of Recognition. It confirmed for me how accomplished personal photography can grow out of an intuitively abstract sense of picture making.

Weston’s later work published as California and the West also became a touchstone for me, as I began to undertake landscape projects that involved long-term commitments, and the production of many negatives. I have always had great affection and admiration for the pictures Brancusi took of his own sculptures in his studio.

When I began to contemplate an in-depth exploration of Inca sites and sculpture, Paul Caponigro’s sustained work on the Megaliths of Great Britain was important to me, and study of pictures made by Bernd and Hilla Becher of industrial structures over many years has been very worthwhile. Finally, the sustained work and thinking of Robert Adams have been important to many of us, in many ways, that are difficult to summarize quickly.

Palpa Valley, 2004. © Ed Ranney

PP: Can you tell us about the making of your photographs? Were you out shooting by yourself? Was there a map of the glyph locations that you followed or did you discover what you photographed on your own?

ER: Since 1985, when my first photographs for the Andean Desert Survey were made, I have been accompanied and helped by any number of archaeologists, Peruvian friends, and local people throughout Peru and northern Chile.

I do mostly travel with friends and guides, but photograph according to my own instincts. I would not have known of or been able to find many of the geoglyphs pictured in the book without the help of local guides, particularly in the Nazca area and northern Chile. As far as I know, only a handful of investigators have undertaken to record where many of the hillside geoglyphs are located. With more time and help, I’m sure I could continue photographing many more glyphs for some time to come.

Viscas River Valley, 2001. © Ed Ranney

PP: Finally, what’s coming up for you over the next year, photographically or otherwise?

ER: I’m still adding pictures to the long-term survey of ancient coastal sites in Peru, of which The Lines is a part. Support for publishing The Lines materialized suddenly in the last year, and I see it as an important step in preparing to publish the broader coastal survey. Peru is so rich in its pre-Columbian heritage that new sites and revised understanding of known ones are continually being announced, and I’ll be photographing some of these in the coming month.

On the other hand, I also have a good deal of work done over the years in the American Southwest, especially in New Mexico, where I live, and I feel it is time to organize that work in different groupings in order to bring it to publication. In addition, some unexpected projects also materialize, such as one I am just beginning now.

This is the opportunity to collaborate with Lima’s Museo de Arte in co-curating an exhibition and catalogue of the work of the historic Cusco photographer Martin Chambi for 2015. I know his archive well from work I did on it in the late 1970s, and this is an opportunity to reexamine it from a number of different perspectives. So there’s a rich interplay of history and image making that hopefully I can continue for some time.

Cantalloc, Nazca Valley, 1994. © Ed Ranney

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